“Chicago, Chicago, I’ll show you around, I love it
Bet your bottom dollar you’ll lose the blues in Chicago…”
Fred Fisher, 1922.
Who are these people? Why, your friends and neighbors, strangers and dreamers, all building a story behind closed eyes, again and again, perfecting its proportions in mind’s eye, then realizing its shape across weeks and months, and finally showcasing its finished form underground, above ground and all around town. (And on NBC, Netflix, Amazon Prime and screens of all sizes and proportions.)
We’ve shaken up this year’s roster, its fourth incarnation, devoted to artists rather than producers, programmers and all-round facilitators. We recognize the importance of both fresh blood and established hands, those with the laser focus of hard-won experience and long-lived memory. It’s essential to highlight bold figures who make work year after year, work that surprises or sustains, as well as supernovas who startle suddenly with vision or verbosity or vivid visuals or vital activism, and of course, those fresh-faced but hardly callow, protean people who you can’t not watch as they invest themselves in capturing their moment and our moments in this toddlin’ town today. Some you know, some you may learn about for the first time here. There are dozens more who could be on this list, equally prodigious multi-hyphenate talents, mingling multiple careers, and we salute their focus, determination, craft and vision, too. We salute everyone with initiatives still gestating, scripts still being written, budgets and production plans still inching forward, accumulating ideas and images and apparitions and true life. Those hearts beat, too. This city- this region- is so rich. Support the work. Encourage the potential. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, but also a community of bright minds and indelible hope and so many narratives we can embrace, recognize ourselves in, or discover ways to transform our imperfect but elementally great city. The greatest American city. Chicago Fire? Chicago “Exorcist”? Chicago P.D.? Naah. Chicago, Chicago.
The Film 50 was written by Ray Pride.
Cover and interior photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.
Note: Since editor Brian Hieggelke has launched a Newcity-related film production enterprise (Chicago Film Project and its “Signature Move”), he recused himself from the selection and ranking of the individuals on this list.
Repeating one of the greatest truths of New York City acting, in 2014, Backstage magazine wrote of “Law and Order”: “Over the twenty-four years Dick Wolf’s deceptively simple premise has been on the air in its various spinoffs, NBC has aired more than 1,000 combined episodes and hired countless actors to play criminals, victims, cops, lawyers, judges, witnesses, and suspects… ‘Law & Order’ [allowed] many of New York’s theater actors the opportunity to get their on-camera [experience].” And now Wolf is in the center of our city, with “Chicago Fire,“ “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med” and “Chicago Justice.” Aside from capturing little-seen byways and back alleys of the city, the economic impact of television and film production, led by Wolf, is staggering, and the ripple effect on the economy and the possibility of regular employment for the film community is vast. “Since our founding, Cinespace has brought in more than three-billion dollars in film-related spending and created 7,500 film-related jobs,” says Alex Pissios, the CEO of Cinespace Chicago. “A good portion is coming from Dick Wolf’s productions. His four shows—including the new ‘Chicago Justice’—have helped raise our city’s profile as a place to do business. These shows have also provided the opportunity for Chicago’s next great filmmakers to gain real filmmaking experience.” The investment of Wolf and other production companies then provides for DePaul University’s film program at Cinespace. “We also encourage these students to create their own films at Stage 18, our new media incubator and workspace,” Pissios says.
“Easy” does it. Joe Swanberg has been foraging for forms to explore in his narrative films since his ragged, rowdy 2005 debut “Kissing on the Mouth.” The thirty-five-year-old director-producer-writer-actor has built upon discernible themes and fixations across more than seventeen features—transparent transpositions of the facts of an actor’s real life, fidelity, fucking, infidelity, negotiating—as well as negotiating a deceptively loose-limbed way with the camera and actors. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody finds Swanberg’s work “revolutionary.” “Swanberg’s sense of dramatic form is seemingly instantaneous and vast,” Brody wrote upon the release of “Digging for Fire,” the 2015 follow-up to the great success of Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies.” “He begins with an impulse, a sentiment, an experience and elaborates it into a vision that’s at once dramatically complete and utterly natural; he conveys an inevitability that makes it seem as if it has always been there, like a cinematic song, and that appears, for exactly that reason, too self-evident, simple, and straightforward to be as furiously original as it is.” While a myriad of features are likely in the works, the Swanberg-Jake Johnson-scripted “Win It All” is in the wings. And, with the eight episodes of his Netflix series, “Easy,” he’s found a way to tell stories at shorter length, but greater breadth, and his refrain in pre-release interviews was that he’s home at last. The actor-friendly show features Orlando Bloom, Emily Ratajkowski, Marc Maron, Jane Adams, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Aya Cash, Dave Franco, Hannibal Buress, Malin Akerman, Jake Johnson, Elizabeth Reaser, “Hoop Dreams”’ Arthur Agee and Dave Pasquesi. (Newcity and its editors are featured in the “Hop Dreams” episode.) “I would like to do this show for the rest of my life,” Swanberg told the Chicago Tribune. “I would love to meet characters from Season One forty years later, and pop back in on their lives, and almost have a ‘Boyhood’ quality. Or Michael Apted’s ‘7 Up’ series. That aspect is really exciting. It will always be genre-defying simply because I could never tell you what the next season would be about. I just know I want it to be about real (if technically fictional) people in real Chicago.” Swanberg also continues to be a vital producer through the fiscally scrappy Forager Films, his partnership with Eddie Linker and Peter Gilbert, whose 2015 output included Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth.” New work includes Perry’s latest ensemble film, “Golden Exits.” Forager moves into distribution this month with the release of Zach Clark’s SXSW-premiered “Little Sister” theatrically and on video-on-demand.
What’s more radical than listening attentively to others? By that measure, Oak Park’s Steve James is a radical filmmaker. James is having a good year, but more years are good for the veteran documentarian than not. From the universally recognized masterpiece “Hoop Dreams” (1994) to “Stevie” (2002), partly about dashed good intentions, to “The New Americans,” “At the Death House Door” and 2011’s “The Interrupters,” James has proven himself one of the clearest-eyed of regional, or truly, international filmmakers. At the International Documentary Association’s Docs Get Real program in September, James reflected on his 2010 ESPN “30 For 30” documentary, “No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson.” “White folks generally don’t like talking about race,” James said. “They are scared they will get it wrong. I’m an exception.” His willingness to confront his own preconceptions while making his work is a hallmark of his humanist approach. While expectations are high for James’ provisionally entitled series “America To Me,” charting a year in the life of a racially diverse high school in the Chicago suburbs, he also premiered “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail,” a clandestine project that debuted to high praise at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, about the repercussions of the prosecution of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned community bank in New York City’s Chinatown, the only commercial bank charged with fraud after the 2008 collapse of the financial industry. Notice for James’ 2014 adaptation of Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself” continued into the fall as it won an outstanding editing News & Documentary Emmy for James and David E. Simpson for its CNN broadcast, Kartemquin’s second Emmy nod. And in its tenth anniversary event, the Cinema Eye Honors polled 110 key members of the documentary community for their ten top filmmakers of the decade. Of course, James was on the list. “Abacus” website.
Strong story structure and stellar pacing with surprises along the way are a hallmark of movies where Aaron Wickenden has an editing credit. The multiple Emmy and ACE Eddie-nominated filmmaker with more than fifteen years on the scene is one of Chicago’s busiest film artisans, with the past two years alone including his debut feature as a director, “Almost There” (co-directed with Dan Rybicky); co-editing “Best of Enemies,” where he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award; co-editing “Burden,” a portrait of performance artist Chris Burden that includes unseen footage from Burden’s 1975 performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art; and co-editing an ambitious new feature doc from Lauren Greenfield about wealth, set for 2017. In a change of pace, Wickenden is also co-editing “The Bandit,” commissioned by Country Music Television, which is about the making of “Smokey and the Bandit” and is also a portrait of its director, Hal Needham. (Needham was Burt Reynolds’ best friend, roommate and stunt-double.) “I met Burt Reynolds on the red carpet outside of the Paramount Theatre in Austin at South by Southwest,” Wickenden says, “and when I was introduced as the editor he said, ‘I hope you gave me a lot of close-ups.’ I did!” He also consults on other virtuous projects, including former Chicagoan Amy Scott’s “Once I Was: the Hal Ashby Story.” Wickenden worked behind the camera on “Almost There,” as well as other documentaries. “I majored in photography in college at the University of Arizona and the summer when I turned twenty-one, I interned with Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz. My youthful goal was to follow a Kubrick-esque path from photography into filmmaking. Or, maybe slip into cinematography. I wasn’t sure. Over spring break one year, I even crashed an ASC [American Society of Cinematographers] clubhouse party and cornered Emmanuel Lubezki, who had just lensed ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ and the DP of ‘Seinfeld’ to talk about their lighting techniques. But the more I got into it, the less interested I was in technical bravado and the more interested I became in storytelling and cinematography that lent itself to transposing the immediacy of an experience.” But he does enjoy getting out of his chair. “Yes, it’s a delight for me to be able to get out of the editing bay every now and again and move around in the world. I filmed a key interview for ‘Trials of Muhammad Ali’ with Minister Louis Farrakhan, and B-camera for Dana Kupper for an interview with John Carlos. As I was editing ‘Finding Vivian Maier,’ I realized how little footage we had of John Maloof working on the project outside of Chicago and suggested a trip to New York City. When he scheduled a trip to interview the late Mary Ellen Mark, who I had studied with, we decided it made sense for me to tag along and film it since I knew what we were looking for in the edit.” Chicago remains home, and the envy of Wickenden’s collaborators. “In the past year, I’ve done some editing from my home base in Chicago, and some work from San Francisco, London and Los Angeles. What I’ve found consistently is that people are jealous of the deeply rooted documentary community that has Kartemquin as its crown jewel. Attending fiftieth anniversary events for KTQ have filled me with such respect for the work of my fellow filmmakers in the fold.” Website.
Filmmaker and multimedia artist Deborah Stratman continues to teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as finding further expressive means through her diverse work that she describes as being about “landscapes and systems.” In the last few years she’s also received Fulbright, Guggenheim and USA Collins fellowships, a Creative Capital grant and an Alpert Award, a MacDowell Colony residency and a post-production residency at the Wexner Center. In 2016, her hour-long “The Illinois Parables,” an experimental documentary collating regional vignettes about faith, force, technology and exodus, debuted at Sundance and received strong reviews. “I would like, without relying on language, to achieve an intellectual cinema,” Stratman wrote upon its release. “I want my work to question its own social function while remaining aesthetically seductive. I make film for the pleasure of creating a temporal universe.” Stratman says her latest work “Xenoi,” a short study of unexpected guests arriving on the Greek island of Syros, “is in a new stylistic key for me. I tried something close to animation for the first time, basically playing with the effects in Premiere, which largely consisted of dumbing down the ‘lightning’ feature, motion track erasure, superimpositions and the like. I also collaborated with Steve Badgett to make props, which are the key ‘protagonists,’ so that’s pretty unlike my prior films as well.” And then, “The project I did at the Lincoln Park Conservatory last winter for ESS’ Florasonic series was a breakthrough in its audience reach simply because that place gets all kinds of visitors. They came for plants, but got gossiping plants instead.” Stratman has a wry take on what’s next for Chicago media. “The future? Well, once the coasts are inundated, and the west dries up, and we warm up a few degrees to take the edge off our winters? This freshwater inland coastal town is going to look pretty dang desirable.” Stratman’s work is often on film and she reflects, “I miss having labs right in town. I hate having to ship my business away. But that’s a pervasive problem nearly everywhere. Still, Chicago’s an easy home for artists. The cost of living’s reasonable and it’s super central, with two major airports, so easy to come and go. A great base city, though many of the best don’t stick around. But Chicago’s independent film scene has really surged this past decade. Maybe in part because of our underdog status—non-L.A.-New York-Berlin—keeps the spotlight off, so we have an artistic environment that doesn’t scorch tender shoots.” Website.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.